Hyderabad to Kuchipudi: Of lyrics and ‘padams’

A visit to an artistic community that has been nurturing a classical dance form for generations


The temple to Siddhendra Yogi in Kuchipudi. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju
The temple to Siddhendra Yogi in Kuchipudi. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju

Four hours into our weekend trip from Hyderabad to Kuchipudi, Vijayawada ushered us into the delta region of the meandering Krishna river. The arid topography gave way to a sprawling expanse of lush green paddy fields and pockets of sugar-cane plantations skirted by tall coconut trees. Kuchipudi is only an hour’s drive from Vijayawada. While the sparsely populated countryside drive seemed good enough to detox from city life, my friends and I were eager to reach the place known for its simplicity and long-standing cultural ethos. 

One of India’s greatest classical arts, Kuchipudi evolved over centuries in this eponymous village in Andhra Pradesh. An artistic community has been living here for generations, nurturing a dance form celebrated for its grace, stylized mime and rhythm. This trip felt like a homage.

For all its awe-inspiring heritage, Kuchipudi is still a small village. So, every must-see sight is “down the road” or “just around the corner”, with the friendly residents guiding you. Many happily act as guides and regale you with anecdotes.

We were told that every family has a teacher, performer or student. Most homes reverberate daily to the sound of music and anklets. Walking through the streets, we heard Thyagaraja’s exquisite Telugu krithis (compositions) Merusamana and Nagumomu, Kshetrayya’s padams (lyrics) and Narayanatheertha’s tharanagams (these composers’ lyrics are staples of Kuchipudi dance). The jingle of anklets, the rhythmic sound play of the nattuvannar’s (dance conductor’s) cymbals, and mridangam beats punctuated occasional exclamations from impressed or exasperated gurus.

After a short walk, we reached the Siddhendra Yogi Kuchipudi Kala Pitham, the college where Kuchipudi is taught and researched. An afternoon class was in progress. The guru beckoned us in, to the front of the class. We sat cross-legged on the floor, watching the graceful but raw moves of the children, all younger than 10 years. 

Once an entire dance sequence had been completed, we thanked the class and decided to walk down the dusty road to the Siddhendra Yogi temple that has a veena (a stringed instrument) sculpted on its arched entrance. The temple is dedicated to Siddhendra Yogi, who codified and systematized the dance form and authored its best-known drama, Bhama Kalapam. Nearby is the well-maintained Shiva-Tripura Sundari temple, which has an attached platform that functions as a small open-air stage for the village.

As we sat on the platform, observing the tiled homes around, an elderly man walked up to us. Volunteering information about the village, Narasimha said it was gifted in the 17th century to the Kuchipudi Bhagavathars (hereditary Brahmin artistes) by Abul Hasan Tanisha, a Qutub Shahi ruler. “The greatest teachers of this art form were from this village,” he said. Among the many iconic teachers and choreographers he mentioned was Vempati Chinna Satyam. At some point, Vempati trained actors Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini and Rekha, and two former chief ministers, the late N.T. Rama Rao and Jayalalithaa. 

Narasimha promised to accompany us the next day to the neighbouring village of Movva.

Movva is the birthplace of the famous padam composer, Kshetrayya, whose lyrics are a treasured part of repertoires of Carnatic music for Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Narasimha walked us through Movva’s well-maintained Muvvagopala temple—the deity inspired Kshetrayya’s lyrics, and a few lines from Kshetrayya’s lyrics are painted on its walls and pillars.  

We walked around the small, sleepy but prosperous-looking village, asking Narasimha why Movva does not host a memorial to its famous son. He replied wistfully, “At least most residents can sing snatches of Kshetrayya padams.” True. Tuneful renditions from homes wafted through the silent lanes. Listening to them, we were sure that the twin villages would keep up the rich cultural legacy for years to come.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @ArunaChandaraju. 

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